Written by Alan Feehely
Sevilla were playing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Europa League “Final 8” tournament in Germany. Despite having won the competition five times previously and having just completed a LaLiga campaign in which they eased to a top-four finish - level on points with Atlético Madrid in third and ten clear of Villarreal in fifth - many were backing Sevilla’s opposition to come through and face Manchester United in the semi-finals.
It was by no means a straightforward victory. Sevilla secured passage through an 88th-minute Lucas Ocampos winner, after a hard-fought battle between two evenly-matched teams. Of key importance for Sevilla was their balance between steel and guile - creative footballers like Ocampos and Éver Banega can only flourish if they’re complemented by a strong defensive core, which was something that they had thanks to the pivote of Fernando Reges as well as the centre-back pairing of Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos.
Koundé, six years Carlos’ junior, in particular, stood out. There was one moment in the first half when Raúl Jiménez, fresh off a season in which he had scored 27 goals, was breaking down the left side. Koundé nipped a dangerous situation in the bud - he matched the Mexican for pace before winning the ball in an improbable manner, making his opponent fall to the ground and the ball spin into enough space for him to progress the play. It was a moment of supreme confidence and skill, a defender winning the ball cleanly without so much as dirtying his white shorts.
Koundé performed superbly in that mini-tournament, which ended with Sevilla beating Inter Milan in the final to lift the trophy yet again. Carlos, highly-touted pre-lockdown, had made a couple of visible errors once football restarted, causing many to question his temperament under pressure. Koundé, in contrast, emerged from the break a changed player displaying his hitherto evident ability on a much more consistent basis. The result of that run of form, perhaps inevitably, was that links with Real Madrid and Manchester City began to surface - rumour has it that the latter had a hefty bid for the 21-year-old Frenchman knocked back by Sevilla during the summer transfer window.
Images from FootballSlices
Born in Paris the November after the 1998 World Cup but of Beninese descent, Koundé has come a long way in a short time. Sevilla signed him for €25 million last summer from Bordeaux, the club that he had joined as a 15-year-old and ended up making 55 league appearances for.
“Koundé was always highly-rated at Bordeaux but was not immediately talked about as having a huge future,” explained Paris-based journalist Andy Scott. “There are so many brilliant young players coming through all the time in France that you can lose track. Sevilla have a keen eye for a good player in the French market - he did well in a mediocre Bordeaux team and has clearly kicked on from there. [Regarding the French national team] he’s in the under-21 squad. Didier Deschamps has no shortage of good players to choose from, with Dayot Upamecano the latest defender to break through, and even Aymeric Laporte can’t get a look-in. But if Koundé keeps up his current progression I wouldn’t rule him out from breaking through, albeit perhaps not until after Euro 2020.”
The comparison with Upamecano is a valid one. There’s an argument to be made that in Europe’s top three leagues - the Premier League, LaLiga and the Bundesliga - both would be in the running for the most promising centre-back under 23 years of age, alongside perhaps Liverpool’s Joe Gomez. In the modern game, being able to bring the ball out from the back is of paramount importance. If you compare dribbles completed per 90 in 2019/20, their numbers are close - Upamecano is at 0.99, Koundé is at 0.70 and Gomez is at 0.49. It should also be noted that Upamecano and Koundé’s numbers are even more impressive given that they aren’t playing in a team as domestically dominant as Liverpool like Gomez.
That ability is a key element of the Frenchman’s game. A mobile centre-back with high levels of anticipation and concentration, he’s quick to intercept attacks and bring the ball out from the back, always calm under pressure and capable of progressing play into the middle third. His statistics hold up - last season he had a pass completion percentage of 86.2%, with 45% of successful pressures coming in the middle third, 81.8% of dribbles completed successfully and 74.5% of aerial challenges won - the fourth-highest in LaLiga. Taking things even further, he completed 50 passes per 90 in 2019/20, with 6.93 of those coming under significant pressure from an opponent. Defensively, he averaged 7.16 pressures per game with a 41.3% success rate, as well as 42.1 carries.
“The biggest strength Jules has is his intelligence and maturity, which is exceptional for his age,” explained Seville-based scout Kevoni. “Koundé knows his own strengths and weaknesses and is always trying to improve. Right after he won the Europa League, for example, he was talking about wanting to improve his heading accuracy and learn from Luuk de Jong - not many players aged 21 would have this type of mentality after winning a trophy, much less a big European trophy like the Europa League.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Koundé,” Kevoni continued. “He could genuinely become one of the best centre-halves of his generation if he keeps working, although there will always be critics pointing to his lack of height for a centre-half [he stands at 1.84m]. Koundé’s desire to improve, strong mentality and incredible jumping reach more than makes up for his perceived lack of height. Despite France’s strength at centre-half, I believe he can become an international regular if he keeps working and stays grounded.”
This season is a big one for both Sevilla and Koundé. Given the situations at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti, there’s a window of opportunity for a highly-organised team to break through that seemingly impermeable glass ceiling and challenge for the title, and Sevilla are undoubtedly the best-placed side to make this leap. Should they end the transfer window with both Koundé and Diego Carlos still at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez-Pijzuán, they’ll have a solid defensive foundation on which to build. Both Sevilla and Koundé have the tools and the potential to hit the elite - the question now is whether they can seize their opportunity.
If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or are wondering what happened to Koundé’s magnificent afro - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown